Tourism and marketing professionals got a taste of the Arkansas Valley's old-timey stores and coffee shops, working farms, historical sites and unique foods this week as La Junta played host to the Southern Colorado Tourism Summit.

Tourism and marketing professionals got a taste of the Arkansas Valley’s old-timey stores and coffee shops, working farms, historical sites and unique foods this week as La Junta played host to the Southern Colorado Tourism Summit.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a summit like this,” explained local tourism and events director Pam Denahy. “We're happy to promote this area and give people a chance to learn about all that we have to offer.”

The summit wraps up Friday, May 19, with a tour of Hanagan and Hirakata farms, Hidden Honey and Burrell Seed Growers.

The gathering of more than 100 tourism and marketing professionals could signal a welcome shift in how the state approaches travel and tourism promotion, according to Ron Davis, owner of Scaff Brothers in La Junta and a longtime advocate for putting more emphasis on Colorado’s rural assets.

He was thrilled to see an event of this kind held in the Arkansas Valley.

“When Colorado runs an ad, it always has snow in it. Everything seems to revolve around snow, skiing and the mountains,” he said. “We have a lot of to offer on the plains of Colorado that aren’t necessarily about mountain grandeur. This is a great opportunity to get some people down here who might be shocked by all there is to see and do.”

Davis owns a small sauce-making company that dates back to 1928 and still makes 28 different products by hand. He’s not in the kitchen every day, but if someone stops by while he’s there he’s glad to show them around his facility, where they might see a 1960s Lebanese-style steak sauce recipe, written out longhand, or a repurposed cooler taken from an old milk truck that once made deliveries door to door.

“There’s some neat things around here,” Davis said. “All of the surrounding towns have wonderful little museums full of stuff like this.”

Nowadays antiques and vintage items, especially those with a food or agriculture theme, have enormous appeal, as many of today’s hottest businesses attest.

Several years ago now Barbara Jacques, a former art teacher, recalls being in a local investment club with another rancher’s wife, a young mother of four, named Ree Drummond.

“She mentioned that she’d like to do a cookbook, but she wasn’t sure whether she would ever get around to actually doing it,” Jacques recalled recently during an event to promote her metalworking and jewelry.

For those who haven’t heard of Drummond, she went on to pioneer a phenomenally successful approach to food blogging that combined chatty self-deprecating entries about life on her Oklahoma ranch with detailed recipe instructions using multiple photographs to document every step of the preparation process. The format proved so popular it soon became the de facto template used by food bloggers everywhere.

Drummond was raised a city girl, but ended up marrying into a well-known ranching family, a story she chronicled on her blog and in her book, "Black Heels to Tractor Wheels." The runaway success of her blog led to the publication of "The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl," as well as six other books, a cooking show on the Food Network and a food and lifestyle magazine that debuts in June.

Her latest undertaking, a combined destination restaurant, bakery and retail store housed in a century-old brick building in downtown Pawhuska, Oklahoma, dubbed the Mercantile, has been drawing huge crowds: an average of 6,000 visitors a day —double the town’s permanent population—and as many as 16,000 on busy weekends.

“It’s a fun thing to see a town in decline for so many years rise up with some life again,” said Jacques, who recently opened her own gallery, Salt Creek Marketplace, just down the street from the Merc. “It’s so exciting to see the life that is flowing through our town again.”

Trudy Hardy owns The Bunkhouse General Store in Fowler, Colorado. She’s a fan of Drummond’s colorful cookware line and owns some pieces herself. At her business, she sells a few locally made handcrafted items, the coffee is always roasted fresh and the cinnamon rolls and sandwich bread are made from scratch.

It’s no mystery to her why a combination of Western ambiance, home-style food and traditional craftsmanship might sell.

“I think people have a desire to have quality goods and services, and I think people get tired of mass-produced food, crafts and clothing,” she said. “If you go into the city, there’s a Starbucks on every corner, but you’re not getting a real authentic experience. People just naturally have a desire for connection with each other and a sense of community.”

“You don’t get that corporately and so people are turning back to small towns and small producers, where they can see the whole process explained from beginning to end,” she added.

The idea of agricultural or rural tourism is still relatively new in the Arkansas Valley, she noted. Even so, small businesses like hers have learned to network and support each other.

“When we get travelers in here we tell them we have a wonderful little floral shop in town or we tell them about Christine’s in Rocky Ford, a neat little restaurant inside of a church,” she said. “We try to help each other because we’re all trying to survive out here.”

Being along U.S. Highway 50 helps draw traffic. Hardy said she gets a surprising number of foreign travelers from countries like Denmark, Italy and the Czech Republic.

“I find that people from outside of the United States are very appreciative of what we do. They are used to the same kind of down-home food we provide here,” she said.

Davis notes that agriculture is what drives the Arkansas Valley and always will. But if tourism officials can expand their understanding of what the plains have to offer and if rural areas can learn to capitalize on the boom in ag related tourism, economic development and consumer education is sure to follow.

“We don’t see our cup as half-empty,” he said. “It’s half-full now, and it’s going to get better.”